D’Var Torah:  Ki Tetse


Ki Tetse, my Torah portion, begins at Deuteronomy 21:10 and ends at chapter 25:19. By Maimonides’ count, it contains a total of seventy-two laws.  These laws are concerned with the social wellbeing of the Israelite community.  It details who can be a part of the community, who cannot and how those that are part of the community are to treat one another.  The laws involve many aspects of daily living, justice, family responsibility and work.  In other words, this torah portion teaches us how to relate to one another as a community. The community is important.  Members of the community are to treat each other kindly, and fairly.  For example:

“You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.  He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.”

When collecting a debt, you shall do so in a righteous way. "

"Do not withhold anything from a day laborer who is poor or a stranger. Pay them their rightful wages before sundown. Let him not cry out to God against you, for that sin would cling to you.

"All your weights and measurements shall be truthful.

"You shall not twist justice for the orphans, widows or strangers. Leave some remains of your crops in the field for them, too.

In today’s haftorah, Isaiah 54 verses 1 to 10, Israel is told that she “ shall spread out to the right and the left.  Your offspring shall dispossess nations.  And shall people the desolate towns.”   As promised, Jews today have spread out and have established communities of various sizes all over the world.

Large communities.  Small communities.  Well-known communities.  Some not so well known.  But how many people here know about the Jewish Community in Trinidad and Tobago?  Very little has been written about them.   What I am sharing today is taken mostly from the articles that Jonathan Likud and Larry Luxner have written about The Calypso Jews of Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidad , the southern-most island of the Caribbean, saw the first major Jewish immigration in the late 1700's. However, none of the descendants of these early immigrants are now Jewish, the vast majority being unaware of their Jewish heritage. In the late 1800's, another group of mostly Portuguese Jews and some from Curacao arrived. Many of these also assimilated or intermarried. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 31 practicing Jews of English origin lived on the island, working generally as civil servants and merchants.  One of the most recognized Jews was Sir Nathaniel Nathan who served as Associate Justice of the Trinidad Supreme Court from 1893 to 1900 and Chief Justice from 1900 to 1903.

The 20th century saw a rapid rise and rapid decline in Jewish population in Trinidad. During the 1930s, many Jews fled to Trinidad from Europe escaping Nazi persecution. From 1936 to 1939, Trinidad was the most welcoming of the Caribbean islands as it had no visa requirement, only a £50 landing deposit. Thousands of Jews found haven in Trinidad. New arrivals settled in houses rented by a Jewish aid society in Port of Spain. They established small businesses in the island's two main towns, Port of Spain and San Fernando. By 1939, the Jewish community numbered 600.

Calling themselves  "The Calypso Jews", they created a cultural and religious life for themselves on the island. A synagogue and community center and its attendant cultural activities began in a rented house on Duke Street in Port of Spain.

With the outbreak of war, all refugees deemed to be "enemy aliens" were interned in camps throughout The Caribbean. Trinidad was no exception. The internment camp was surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence with sentry towers and search lights.  Although children were given special permissions to attend school outside the camp, understandably, many of the refugees felt deeply insulted by this course of events.

In 1943, they were released with certain wartime restrictions. They had to report daily to the nearest police station, were banned from driving cars or riding bicycles, and were under curfew from 8:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. In disgust, some families left. Others stayed and brought back to light the community life they had started before internment. A soccer team was established, the drama club performed plays in Hebrew and Yiddish, and they held fund-raisers for Israel. The community was, in a word, vibrant. As the children grew however, many left to study overseas.  Few returned to live. Of those who did, many intermarried or assimilated and the community gradually began to dissolve after it reached its peak of 700 people by The Mid 1900's.

In The 1970's, Trinidad's political and social stability was threatened by a wave of "Black Power" riots. Fearing for their safety, the majority of the remaining population migrated en masse. Many created new roots in Canada where they remain to this day. Religious artifacts were moved to Barbados to ensure their safety.  One of the community’s  Torah scrolls resides at Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal.

One can still find evidence of this brief renaissance of Jewish life in Trinidad.  In one Jewish-built housing complex near Diego Martin- a suburb of Port of Spain- all the streets are named after Israeli pioneers like Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion.  There are also places named after local Jews.

Also, on every police car, policeman, and police station is a hummingbird within a Magen David.  In the 1930s, a British commander who moved to Trinidad after being stationed in Palestine, put a white star against a blue background for the local army symbol, switching the colours of what was to become The Israeli Flag.  The hummingbird was later added for local flavour.  This makes Trinidad unique in that it is the only police service in the world that does not use its country’s Coat of Arms as its official symbol.

Although Trinidad and Tobago is a small country, its ethnic and religious mix is unusually diverse: 32 percent of its people are Roman Catholic, 28 percent are Protestant and 24 percent are Hindu. Another 6 percent are Muslim.  Despite the fact that Trinidad & Tobago's 1.3 million inhabitants make it the second-largest English-speaking nation in the Caribbean, exceeded in population only by Jamaica, there are today, only about 55 Jews.

Currently, the community holds occasional services for Shabbat and holidays. "Ours is a very small community," Jewish community leader Hans Stecher told JTA. "We embrace into our midst people with Jewish roots who are interested in their heritage. We have many sympathizers. Some of our members are Jewish women married to Trinidadians and people descended from Sephardim who have feelings for their origins."

Barbara Malins-Smith, nominated as Israel's first honorary consul in Port of Spain rediscovered her own Jewish roots the day her sons, Alex and Philip, came home from school and announced they wanted to be Catholic, like everyone else. "That's when it hit me, that my Judaism would end with me, because I was an only child," she said. "The rest of my family had all married out of the faith. They emigrated to Canada, and a majority of them are no longer Jewish."

In 2003, 31 year old Web site designer Sarina Nicole Bland established B’nai Shalom, an informal Jewish organization that meets in members’ homes for occasional services and Jewish holidays.  Nicole has been working hard to revive the Jewish community, but lack of funds and other obstacles make it difficult.

The Jewish community in Trinidad is small, unknown, and has many obstacles to overcome.  Is it possible for them to be a light in their community and make a difference?   They are doing what they can with the little that they have.  Perhaps their biggest success was getting Trinidad's head of state, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, to visit Israel in November 2005.  According to community members, this was the first time a prime minister from any Caribbean country had ever made an official visit to Israel.  During his term as Prime Minister, Manning publicly supported Israel, as have various Pentecostal and evangelical churches throughout Trinidad.

Now, if such a tiny community, struggling just to survive, could have such an influence politically, imagine what a community of our size can do.  The shepherd David in the Torah is a wonderful example of the difference that just one person can make.  He was not afraid to face the giant Goliath.  He used what little resources he had and won the battle for his community.  We too can make a difference…In our community and in our world.

The title of this week’s Torah portion is "When you go out" while the title of next week’s is "When you come in."   Going out and coming in reflects the activities of our daily lives.   Everyday is an opportunity for us to do good and make a difference in our world.  This time of year is a time of reflection and a time when we look forward to all the opportunites that are ahead of us to repair our world.  May we do so with joy.  I wish you all L’Shanah tovah!

Roslyn Walker

August 2010